Don Juan as Dissident Poet in Venedikt Erofeev’s Val’purgieva noč’, ili šagi komandora

Alexander Burry, Princeton University

Venedikt Erofeev’s 1985 tragedy Val’purgieva noč’, ili šagi komandora reenacts Puškin’s Kamennyj gost’, the first Russian version of the Don Juan legend, to frame the struggle between a poet and the authorities in a Soviet mental hospital. As Anna Axmatova (1958), David Glenn Kropf (1994), David Herman (1999), and other commentators on Kamennyj gost’ have discussed, Puškin recasts the legend primarily by portraying Don Juan as a poetic figure who continually reinvents himself to escape the tyranny and immobility represented by the Commander. The play thus becomes a commentary on the dilemma of the poet victimized by a stagnant societal milieu and political system. Naum Leiderman and Mark Lipovetskij (2001) locate an opposition in Val’purgieva noč’ between the inventive, poetic language of Gurevič and his fellow inmates and the reified officialese, accompanied by physical force, of Borenka, the doctor, and the rest of the staff. At first glance, Erofeev seems to be directly recasting Puškin’s conflict into Soviet times by favorably contrasting Gurevič’s poetry and his vision of carnivalesque freedom to the authorities who attempt to control him.

            However, this opposition is made more complex by the fact that Erofeev distributes traits of both Don Juan and the Commander to Gurevič and Borenka. By doing so, he adds ambiguity to Gurevič’s poetic Donjuanism. Although Gurevič aims to create a “higher unity” within Ward 3 through his drunken May Day festivities, the resulting destruction of the ward thus surpasses even Borenka’s brutality. Moreover, Gurevič’s tendency to synthesize the inmates’ competing discourses into his own vision reproduces the monologizing effect of the doctor, who repeatedly tries to make Gurevič stop speaking in “Shakespearean iambs.” In this manner, Erofeev implies complicity between the dissident poet and Soviet power, in which Gurevič merely substitutes another all-pervading ideology for the official one. Poetic freedom, paradoxically, recreates the same oppression it seemingly opposed. Val’purgieva noč’ thеrefore casts doubt on Puškin’s relatively optimistic view of the creative artist’s potential to rebel (despite his tragic end) against power. At the same time, Erofeev adds his own take on the Don Juan legend by asserting an identity between the seemingly opposed Don and Commander.